THE LAST WALTZ

A few weeks ago I marked the half-century of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in a post intended as a little nostalgic interlude from the contemporary doom ‘n’ gloom that has invariably continued to dominate posts ever since. Although I’m not adhering to precise dates, another landmark album – albeit one that characterised the ‘post-Rock’ age we still reside in – also appeared in the month of June, thirty years after The Beatles’ magnum opus and twenty years away from today, Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’. The media may have neglected to mark the occasion, but in many respects, ‘OK Computer’ is the landmark album the media doesn’t like to talk about. I’d almost forgotten two decades had elapsed since its release, for it still sounds like the soundtrack to the here and now.

Where ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ marked the optimistic maturity of a new musical form that had come on in adventurous leaps and bounds over a brief period of four years, ‘OK Computer’ carried the history of the generation raised in the shadow of the 60s on its weary shoulders and tried to look forward in the process; what it saw ahead of it wasn’t exactly cause for celebration. Yet, appearing as it did at the fag-end of ‘Cool Britannia’ and barely a month after New Labour were elected into office, the album marked the decisive end of a period of false hope by anticipating not only the corrupt charade of Blair and the mass hysteria of Diana’s death, but essentially the mood of the century we’re lumbered with.

The two years leading up to the release of ‘OK Computer’ had been a curious albeit conscious diversion from the grim alternative of Grunge, which had culminated in the suicide of its most articulate and charismatic spokesman. Oasis wanted to ‘Live Forever’ and Blur wanted to escape into an imaginary musical universe where Madness starred in ‘Help!’ instead of the Fab Four. It was fun, frivolous and a breath of fresh air whereby bands once destined for the Indie ghetto temporarily usurped the tedious test-tube boy-bands at the top of the charts. Yet even when Britpop was dominant, Radiohead were striking a more dissonant chord with 1995’s ‘The Bends’, a stunningly brilliant album that had combined critical acclaim with commercial success without conceding to the prevailing trends. Two years later, when Liam, Noel, Damon and Jarvis were unlikely tabloid darlings, Radiohead re-emerged with a record that both caught the mood of the moment and predicted what was to come.

I purchased ‘OK Computer’ on the day of its release, given an inkling of what to expect by the trailer of ‘Paranoid Android’, a bizarre beast of a single that bore more relation to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ than ‘Wonderwall’, though the LP still surprised me when the needle touched down on the vinyl. At the time, I was living in a crack-den-cum-brothel that wasn’t exactly the ‘Country House’ Blur had sarcastically sung the praises of in a promo video reminiscent of a Benny Hill sketch; if ever an album said (to turn Morrissey’s lyrical quote on its head) something to me about my life, ‘OK Computer’ seemed to more than any other in 1997. Things couldn’t only get better – not for the moment, anyhow.

Whilst the mass media’s eyes were focused on the narcissistic vacuum of Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’, Radiohead sneaked under the mainstream radar with a record that was less about wallowing in a self-indulgent, coke-fuelled cul-de-sac as it was about the morning after the Britpop party. It pre-dated the NME’s calling out of Blair with its ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ cover and mirrored the sudden change in mood heralded by Blur’s inspired retreat into lo-fi darkness with their eponymous fifth album and then reiterated by the bleak grandiosity of The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’. Greeted with more or less unanimous critical praise upon release, ‘OK Computer’ shot straight to the top of the UK LP charts and soundtracked what proved to be a strange summer.

Lazy summaries of Radiohead as a band (ones that continue to dog them) appear to have their foundations in ‘OK Computer’, which is perceived as a depressing album in a late Pink Floyd vein, usually by those who haven’t actually heard it. Most of the music on it is staggeringly beautiful, but in a challenging manner that demands the listener re-evaluates their concept of beauty. ‘No Surprises’ echoes the sweetness and light of The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t it Be Nice’ but retains the melancholic undercurrent that runs through the album, whereas ‘Karma Police’ borrows a chord sequence from The Beatles’ ‘Sexy Sadie’, reinforcing the fact that the British music scene of the mid-90s had bypassed a revival of Psychedelia and had gone straight to the less joyous landscape of ‘the White Album’.

The overriding theme of ‘OK Computer’ is one of disillusionment, something that registered as much with me while I staggered through the dying months of my 20s as it did the generation behind me, who were about to be dropped like a stone by the new government they’d been wooed by that spring. It taps into the paranoia and fear of the future that surfaced as the Millennium edged closer on the horizon and does so with a musical tapestry that is rooted in the familiar whilst simultaneously stretching to develop a new narrative for a form weighed down by its illustrious past. The cold detachment of the Stephen Hawkin-like electronic vocal on ‘Fitter Happier’ chimes with the lyrical content of the record, which seems to second-guess the isolating impact of the internet as well as the impending collapse of corporate globalisation. ‘OK Computer’ may have been of its time, but it was also ahead of its time; it’s arguable no act since its release has commented on the present as effectively as Radiohead managed before that present had even arrived.

Radiohead’s performance at Glastonbury the summer of the album’s release was probably one of the last occasions in which the festival was headlined by a band at the peak of their creative powers, marking the end of an era in more ways than one. One could even go as far as to say ‘OK Computer’ was the last time a contemporary band tuned a cracked mirror on its era and reflected that era back at its audience. Like The Beatles and Bowie before them, Radiohead looked beyond the limitations of their peers operating in the same genre and tried to incorporate elements of other genres, in Radiohead’s case the electronica of DJ Shadow and the trip-hop of Portishead. The end result may have sounded like neither influence, but ended up as a unique hybrid of both blended with more formulaic Rock insignias. Who has even attempted that since?

It wasn’t twenty years ago today that Sgt Yorke told his band to play, but it’s near enough; at the same time, it’s a long time ago. And I find that fact increasingly hard to believe; but then, I’m old enough to have been there. And it amazes me more that I’m still here to state that fact, for I certainly didn’t think I would be in 1997. But I doubt Sgt Yorke thought his band would be either. It turns out there were surprises, after all.

© The Editor

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A REPEAT PERFORMANCE

The old complaint always used to be that there were too many repeats on television; but I suppose it depended on what was being repeated. A classic BBC series such as ‘The Forsyte Saga’ benefitted from being repeated, with the programme and the audience joint beneficiaries. It earned its household name popularity when receiving a repeat run on BBC1 in 1968, having originally been screened on BBC2 the year before. At the time, the majority of the country’s viewers couldn’t receive the Beeb’s second channel on their ageing 405-line sets, so it was a shrewd move by BBC1, intended to justify the considerable expense spent on the serial. One is made aware of just how poor the image quality must have been on those 60s tellies when watching ‘The Forsyte Saga’ on DVD today; some of the makeup used to age the actors doesn’t necessarily bear up to digital scrutiny.

Glancing through musty copies of the Radio Times from the early 70s, it’s surprising how few repeats there actually are in the listings, something that contradicts the complaints about repeats even then. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that complicated Equity rules regarding repeat fees throughout the 70s effectively limited how many programmes could actually be repeated; moreover, there was a gradual reluctance to rerun monochrome programmes from the 60s when the BBC and ITV were forever extolling the superior delights of colour television. And, lest we forget, the standard practice of wiping shows not long after their initial broadcast precluded them being seen again, anyway. Television had been, for most of its life, a transient medium that existed very much in the present; but that was about to change.

By the mid-70s, television had been around long enough to begin developing a sense of its own history, and the first wave of TV anniversary shows, such as the BBC’s ‘Forty Years’ in 1976, belatedly awakened the compilers of programmes reliant on archive material just how poorly-served the archives were. Added to this, there was an increasing interest in the back catalogues of long-running series like ‘Doctor Who’; even if there was no real medium available for the commercial release of the series’ archive, the salvaging of old episodes poised to be incinerated began in earnest during this period.

The arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 not only ushered in a fresh age of edgy broadcasting reflecting the here and now; it also revived several series that hadn’t had a decent repeat run in years, though the approach of this new kid on the broadcasting block to television’s heritage was as different to the regional ITV companies’ repeat policies as a charity shop is from a vintage one. The likes of ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Budgie’ and ‘Callan’ weren’t hidden away in the twilight hours, but given prime-time slots and elevated to the status of classics. Enough time had now passed since their first broadcasts to warrant the label.

The growth in the home video market from the early 80s onwards was initially focused on the produce of the movie industry, but television soon realised the potential too. VCRs sent many broadcasters scuttling in the direction of their depleted archives, hoping they could find the odd episode of a once-beloved series to stick out on VHS for twenty quid. Even if the rare case of a series preserved in its entirety meant it could have received a full video release, tapes were extremely expensive to buy at the time and could usually only hold a couple of episodes of anything at most. Many favourite series I now own in full on DVD were ones I just had a few episodes of on VHS releases for years; and in a lot of cases, the complete series on DVD cost about the same as two episodes on one tape would have cost me twenty-five years ago. Not all progress is bad.

The deregulation of TV in the wake of the 1990 Broadcasting Act meant there were many more channels suddenly available, though with numerous hours to fill, the cheapest way of filling them was to repeat old programmes. Yet, this also nicely chimed with an upsurge in nostalgia amongst 30-somethings for childhood shows; and when the more obvious and best-remembered of these finished their runs, one intriguing side-effect was that channels such as UK Gold and Granada Plus were then forced to excavate programmes that, in some cases, hadn’t been seen on British television for twenty years or more. Mid-90s off-air recordings of these can still sometimes surface on YouTube.

The arrival of the DVD and the innovation of the box-set finally took the decision of what old shows would or wouldn’t be repeated out of the hands of the broadcasters and did what even the VHS failed to do – it enabled fans to own the complete series of a favourite programme at a reasonable price, and usually (when old prints were digitally cleaned-up) in a better condition than even when they’d first been transmitted on TV. Companies like Simply Media, Acorn, 2 entertain and, best of all, Network have ploughed a similar path to the oldies channels of the 90s by following the release of the best-remembered series with the availability of the half-remembered and the near-forgotten; the half-remembered and the near-forgotten, however, are often worth investing in if one is interested in archive TV, as they regularly throw up pleasant surprises.

Whilst the advent of Netflix and other similar systems are now being heralded as not only the end of old-style appointment TV on terrestrial channels but as the end of the DVD box-set as well, when it comes to archive television it would seem the DVD is still its most fitting home. Yes, it may also be its retirement home; but opting out of television’s endless peak-time talent contests by escaping into a parallel universe of personal choice is the same as rejecting the radio and sticking the music on that you want to hear rather than the music someone else is shoving down your throat. At the moment, I’m back with Edward Woodward and his hygienically-challenged sidekick Lonely as they slip in and out of their shadowy and seedy, vanished 70s landscape of Cold War wallpaper. And in 2017, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

© The Editor

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THE 25-YEAR ITCH

Not that long since, I switched on the TV and BBC2 was showing a Dara O’Briain gig; it was only when the credits rolled at the end that I realised the programme was a repeat from five years previously. There was nothing visually on display to suggest it was that old; the appearance of the members of the audience and the star of the show himself implied it could have been recorded last week. I momentarily imagined it was 1981 and I was viewing a Jasper Carrott gig from 1976; the difference in the hairstyles and clothes would have been so glaring that it would have been instantly obvious this was five years old.

If we were to study photographs of street scenes taken over the last twenty years, I surmise it would probably be difficult to discern which images were oldest and which were most recent; the members of the public caught on camera wouldn’t look much different in any of them. Compare a street scene between, say, 1964 and 1974 or 1974 and 1984, however, and it would be instantly identifiable as to which decade the photos belonged in. Whenever ‘Starsky & Hutch’ was re-run in the mid-1980s, the dated dress-sense of the two lead characters marked it out from another era as much as the sleeve of the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack LP did, yet both were from less than ten years before.

Anyone who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s was given something of a false impression that popular culture was built on shifting sands, a fluid, ever-changing creature that existed in a permanent state of transition – or at least the impression given was that this would always be the case. It hadn’t been before, though. Compare (if you can) family photos from before and after the war; the men have regulation short-back-and-sides and are wearing suits on either side of the conflict; there’s little to distinguish the male figures in the images from the 30s and the 50s. With the women, there are subtle differences in their hairstyles and the height of their hemlines, but it’s not that dramatic. What would soon become ‘teenagers’ resemble Mini-Me versions of their parents; by the beginning of the 70s, it would be the parents looking to their children for tips on how to dress.

From the 60s onwards, the people mirrored the trend-setters in a way that was new. The death of haut-couture that was brought about by the likes of Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki took fashion from the exclusive houses of Paris and Rome and passed it down to the high-street – affordable for the masses because the masses had produced the trend-setters, whether Twiggy or Brian Jones. The growth of mass-media via television also brought this into living rooms and out of the pages of ‘Vogue’, no longer elite or expensive. It was social mobility’s sartorial incarnation and what had once been seen as the province of the ‘poofy’ and effeminate eventually reached defiantly masculine professions such as mining or football – all in the space of less than a decade.

From the dandified poseurs of 1968 to the scruffy hippie hobos of 1971, from the platform-heeled Glam wannabes of 1973 to the spiky-haired and safety-pinned Punks of 1977, and from the floppy-haired New Romantics of 1981 to the football hooligan sportswear chic of 1985’s Casuals, the pace of life as lived through its fashions was breathless. The soundtrack to this frenetic rummaging in the dressing-up-box was no less speedy. At the end of the 70s and into the 80s, it went from Punk, New Wave and Two-Tone to Synth-Pop in the space of around three years, with a figure such as Gary Numan acting as an effective bridge between the two decades, with one foot in both of them without really belonging to either as they have come to be retrospectively remembered. This wasn’t destined to last. It couldn’t.

The Acid House scene that went over-ground in 1988 was the grand finale of the era that had begun with the moral panic of Rock ‘n’ Roll thirty years previously. The whole Rave culture remained the cutting-edge until around 1992, when The Shamen’s chart-topping ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ signalled it was essentially over as a subversive sound, despite the controversy surrounding the single’s drug wordplay. Running parallel with the Dance dominance as the 80s gave way to the 90s was the mainstream breakthrough of Hip Hop, something that had slowly grown in influence throughout the decade. In a sartorial sense, the Hip Hop look proved to be the blueprint for the street-wear that has been the default style of youth for the last twenty-five years.

As their circulation figures plummeted in the face of online competition, the old music papers struggled to invent cults in the established traditions as the twenty-first century staggered into a cultural cul-de-sac. ‘Hoodies’ were not comparable to Mods and Rockers, as a hoodie is simply an item of clothing that can be worn by anyone under a certain age and is not tribally specific. Similarly, what is held up as an example of a contemporary cutting-edge sound such as Grime is not necessarily doing anything that the likes of So Solid Crew weren’t doing fifteen years ago. When a product-placement multi-millionaire showbiz businessman like Jay-Z is a role model (basically Victor Kiam with a break-beat) where be the Revolution?

Now that a quarter-of-a-century has passed since the last old-school youth-quake that was Acid House ended and the evidence that pop culture has entered an era of suspended animation is right there in the world outside your window with every passer-by, perhaps it’s time to admit an epoch is over and we are living in musical and sartorial stasis. The age of constant change that characterised the 50s up until the 90s now feels like an aberration in cultural terms; the world has reverted to type, a world in which every development is merely an exercise in recycling and therefore takes us round in ever-decreasing circles. For those of us who were either in the thick of it or caught the coat-tails of it, we should count ourselves lucky.

© The Editor

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BACK TO THE TEACHER

Okay, so it’s been a bloody grim week so far, and as a means of combating the worst elements of the twenty-first century, I’ve been retreating into the selective embrace of the past in the shape of programmes for schools and colleges produced in the 1970s. Thanks to YouTube, over the last 48 hours I’ve sat through 40-odd year-old editions of ‘Look and Read’, ‘Words and Pictures’, ‘How We Used to Live’ et al. If I dip into my desk drawer and pull out a copy of the Radio Times from the same era (the copy in question dated 31 August-6 September 1974), the centre pages provide the most striking contrast between television then and television now, for they contain a four-page guide to that autumn’s educational schedule across BBC TV and radio.

And the variety on offer in this schedule is all the more eye-opening because these series are all primarily aimed at adults; there isn’t even room for cataloguing the myriad of programmes produced for schools during this period. Got kids? Watch ‘Parents and Children’ on BBC1; like football? Listen to ‘Behind the Goals’ on Radio 3; just qualified as a social-worker? Watch ‘Developments in Social Work’ on BBC2; interested in ‘news-making, decision-making and forms of loyalty’? Watch ‘Focus’ on BBC1 – and that’s not the flute-based, yodelling Dutch prog-rock band, despite ‘House of the King’ being used as the theme tune to numerous educational programmes in the 1970s.

You can learn to speak German, Spanish, Russian and Welsh, learn to become a mountaineer, rugby player and gardener, learn how to understand economics, the National Health and local government, not to mention ‘systematic thinking in action’! Arts, sciences, languages, the community, home and leisure, work and industry, teaching – all fall under the umbrella of public service broadcasting in 1974. Despite his reservations over the one-eyed monster, no doubt Lord Reith would have been proud his original remit remained relatively intact.

Today, what used to be viewed as television down-time is filled during the day with cheap and cheerful antiques/cookery/house-buying and selling/quiz show formulas and late at night with rolling news, interactive game shows and repeats of daytime fodder with a man in the corner of the screen aptly gesticulating his way through ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’. In retrospect, it’s amazing how a TV landscape that switched-off around midnight seemed to cram more into its limited broadcasting hours than one that never sleeps. The adult education programmes described above could usually be found hidden away last thing at night or presented together in a large chunk on a Sunday morning, sandwiched between a religious service and farming news; space in the listings may have been at a precious premium, but the schedulers always found a space to educate and inform as well as entertain.

Then of course, there were the twilight hours that were occupied by hirsute men in spectacles with little or no evident experience in front of a camera – the Open University. Who could forget that eerie, unnerving jingle jolting the armchair snoozer back to life far more effectively than a car alarm would do today? And who could forget programmes for schools and colleges? For anyone who was of school age in the 60s, 70s or 80s, they were amongst the few breathers from the classroom tedium on offer. What a ritual that was, being ushered into the library and watching the teacher wheel-in a huge telly, waiting for what felt like an aeon for the machine to warm-up, and then being greeted by some unsettling Radiophonic Workshop ditty accompanying a pulsating diamond or a circle of disappearing dots before the actual programme began.

It’s worth bearing in mind just how many hours were given over to schools broadcasts as well. An average BBC1 week during term-time would begin around 9.38am and would sign-off not long after midday; following a dinner-break for the test card, the news, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ and ‘Watch with Mother’, schools TV would open its gates again for another hour or so at the precise time of 2.2pm. That’s not even including BBC schools broadcasts on the radio, when the VHF wavelength on Radio 4 would be used exclusively for them between 10.00 in the morning and 3.00 in the afternoon.

We should also remember that ITV – yes! ITV! – played its part in the television education of the nation’s children as well. Even though commercial considerations freed them from a less rigid public service commitment than the Beeb, their weekday schedule ran from 9.30-12.00 and produced some of the most memorable schools programmes of them all. There was even an advertising armistice during these transmissions.

Calculate just how much of pre-24 hour TV on both sides of the British broadcasting divide was given over to educational programming and it’d be pretty impressive. It’s indisputable that many were cheaply-made on shoestring budgets, especially the Open University broadcasts; and some were uniquely dull in a manner that elevated visual boredom to a level that now seems quite radical, on a par with the worst Warhol movies or a contemporary art installation But I’d still be more bored sitting through an edition of ‘This Morning’ than an episode of Granada’s austere schools science show, ‘Experiment’.

Noble ventures are not something one would now really associate with British television. Most 21st century TV execs would probably regard ‘Comic Relief’ or ‘Children in Need’ as such, and in their own way, they are. But annual or bi-annual telethons, when the normal schedule is set aside for one night only to accommodate a good deed, are different to the noble venture that was educational television. It was a product of a period in which the people who ran television regarded it as a tool of communication that amounted to more than a ratings-chasing commercial cash-cow or a daytime sedative. Much like the internet is today, TV then was viewed as a multi-purpose medium capable of all that life can afford.

So, where did it go? Firstly, the advent of the VCR hailed the death-knell of schools programming in its traditional slot; secondly, in the mid-80s BBC TV schools programmes were shunted over to BBC2 in preparation for the launch of daytime BBC1 and the arrival of cosy sofa chinwags about child abuse and the menstrual cycle. Not long after, ITV transferred their schools schedule to Channel 4 in order that Richard and Judy could do likewise, paving the way for menopausal gobshites and underclass-baiting bullies. It is ironic that a slot once reserved for mind-expansion is now reserved for the gradual erosion of the brain cells, and after-dark telly today is no less retarded. It does seem a shame that the increase in broadcasting hours doesn’t seem capable of embracing the same breadth of broadcasting available when less was more.

© The Editor

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BONFIRE OF THE SEVENTIES

Anyone remember the Big Society? In conjunction with David Cameron’s grand scheme to get us all collective (bit Socialist-sounding, really) there was a survey carried out intended to establish a ‘happiness scale’; there had been precedents, though. Previous surveys along similar lines had come to unexpected conclusions. According to records, the happiest the British populace has ever been recorded as being was in 1976. That’s right – the year when Labour Chancellor Denis Healey went cap-in-hand to the IMF for a loan to prevent Britain’s bankruptcy and Punk emerged as youth culture’s reaction to the perilous state of the nation. Lest we forget, however (if we’re old enough, of course), it was also the year of the Long Hot Summer; whether or not the survey was undertaken when the country was basking in the sunshine history doesn’t record, though it might explain the surprising results.

All of which leads us nicely into the shock-horror headlines on the front of today’s Mail and Telegraph, announcing Jezza’s apparent intentions to take us back to that much-maligned decade; aside from me wondering whether or not a journalist from those esteemed organs had stumbled upon the video I attached to a post on here a couple of days ago, my first thought was that their opposition to the prospect was understandable from a Tory perspective. Bar three-and-a-half years between June 1970 and February 1974 as well as the last seven months of 1979, the Conservative Party was out of office; and its 1970-74 government was led by the perennially-discredited Edward Heath. Mrs T came into office too late to make a real mark on the 70s. To regard a return to the 70s as the worst nightmare of the said papers and their readership is something of an understatement.

The claim of Corbyn’s intent derives from the leaked Labour manifesto for the upcoming General Election that hardly contained much in the way of surprises. Renationalising the railways has been a stated policy ever since Jezza became Labour leader and one that many old Tories – Peter Hitchens included – have no ideological argument with; privatisation of the railways was not one of the most successful or celebrated privatisations, after all. Reversing part-privatisation of the NHS is another policy few would dispute; Blair’s public-private partnership project is one whose disastrous legacy is all-too evident. And then there’s the abolition of tuition fees; when a generation of journos and politicos who enjoyed the luxury of state student grants oppose the revival of the system they benefitted from, one cannot but question their opposition.

The right and the left’s negative narrative of the 1970s has merged in recent years so that the decade has been rebranded as an era when bolshie commie unions held the country to ransom whilst the establishment allowed them to get away with it because it was too preoccupied with molesting children on an industrial scale; the people, on the other hand, turned a blind eye because their attention was distracted by the desire to acquire the latest must-have household appliances and dressing like the Diddy Men, preventing them from sitting up and taking notice. Operations Yewtree, Midland and Conifer have all played their pernicious parts in this historical revisionism, along with endless ‘wise-after-the-event’ clips programmes on crap channels fronted by talking heads who weren’t even around at the time. Like any negative narrative, however, there is an alternative viewpoint.

One could cite the democratisation of popular culture, when the 60s revolution enjoyed by an elite few finally filtered down to the masses and Joe Public experienced a brief liberation from both sartorial and moral straitjackets, as a plus; ditto the increased significance of that popular culture in daily life, where it had an importance above and beyond the leisure industry it now represents. New releases by David Bowie or Pink Floyd were artistic events rather than coffee-table merchandise; ditto small-screen landmarks such as ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ or ‘Roots’, giving a voice and opening eyes to those who had previously been denied a wider spotlight, reflecting the genuine and valid rise in political awareness of women, gays and ethnic minorities.

The police force may have been inherently bent and guilty of persecuting said minorities, but no more than they are in the twenty-first century. A female head of the Met means bugger all beyond politically-correct tokenism, particularly when Cressida Dick’s role in the disgraceful Jean Charles de Menezes affair is taken into account.

For the Mail and the Telegraph, a return to the values and ethos of the most revised and reviled decade of recent history being the ultimate horror story makes logical sense from their perspective, though no politician can turn back the clock in the way their headlines imply. If that was literally possible, then I’d have to head back to my primary school in the autumn, even though it closed about ten years ago. Whilst getting ready for school, I’d be able to switch on the radio and be faced with a choice of Noel Edmonds or Terry Wogan, and the only telly I’d see before the late afternoon would either be a solitary schools programme in the library or (if I decided to go home for dinner) ‘Pipkins’ and ‘Farmhouse Kitchen’. I’d also not have to concern myself with bills and rent, though 50p-a-week pocket-money might just cover them, anyway.

Yes, that’s how silly this storm-in-a-teacup really is; and if this is the best the right-wing press can come up with to combat a threat from Labour that they’re simultaneously telling us isn’t a threat at all when Theresa May’s coronation is a nailed-on certainty, one has to wonder what all the fuss is about. It couldn’t be that they actually believe the unthinkable is possible, could it?

© The Editor

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A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

In a way, I felt I shouldn’t laugh; but everyone on the TV was and I couldn’t help it. Just finding out that Michael Portillo’s other two names were Denzil and Xavier seemed ridiculously hilarious in the context of what was happening. He even smiled himself as the revelation was greeted with rapturous laughter, which was perhaps the first public indication the man had a sense of humour, something that would manifest itself a decade later when he took up residency on Andrew Neil’s late-night sofa and became more known for his garish fashion sense whilst building a new career as a TV train-spotter. Exactly twenty years ago today, however, he was the incumbent Defence Secretary, defending the safe Tory seat of Enfield Southgate.

As soon as the declaration at Enfield Southgate was announced and the baby-faced Labour candidate Stephen Twigg realised he had usurped a household name from his seat, it was the latest in a remarkable sequence of events that night. Anyone who stayed up to watch the results come in on the General Election of 1 May 1997 will recall the domino effect on John Major’s Government as one-by-one prominent Tories and numerous Members of the Cabinet were toppled from their lofty positions. The hardly universally-beloved likes of Edwina Currie, Neil Hamilton and Norman Lamont saw their careers in the Commons go up in smoke; and David Mellor memorably gave his losing speech whilst being heckled by Sir James Goldsmith.

The roll-call of Ministerial casualties included not only Portillo, but Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, whose loss of his Edinburgh Pentlands seat characterised the electoral annihilation the Tories suffered north of the border; they were also obliterated in Wales. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, it was a remarkable election evening to witness, unlike any other I’d seen up until that point; and what happened next doesn’t necessarily diminish the memory of that amazing viewing experience.

When Margaret Thatcher won in 1979, I was eleven; when Tony Blair won in 1997, I was twenty-nine. If one looks back eighteen years from today’s perspective, we arrive in 1999, which in some respects doesn’t feel that long ago; but eighteen years from 11 to 29 is a vast expanse of living and learning as the transition from child to adult is undergone. The majority of my life up until 1997 had been lived with the Conservative Party running the country, and it almost felt that anyone other than them governing the rest of us was some distant childhood memory on a par with my first day at school or Jon Pertwee regenerating into Tom Baker, something that could never be recaptured.

I’d watched every General Election night on the telly with growing interest in events from 1983 onwards, and every time the result was the same; the Tories seemed to be the political equivalent of the German national football team; they never lost a penalty shoot-out. Despite poll predictions of a Hung Parliament in 1992, the Tories were returned to power with the greatest share of the vote in British history; after that, it really felt as if Britain was destined to be a one-party state for eternity, which is why 1997 was such a shock to the system.

John Major’s administration was fortunate that the swift plummet of its fortunes occurred within months of the Conservative’s historic victory in 1992 and they were able to cling onto power for a full five-year Parliament, hoping that would give them enough time to recover. But events, and Major’s Ministers, ensured that wouldn’t happen. The ERM debacle on Black Wednesday took place in September 1992, and from that point on his government were dead men walking; from Michael Howard squirming under the Paxman spotlight to Archer, Aitken, Hamilton and Mellor, the mid-90s seemed incapable of going seven days without another Tory being caught with his trousers down or his hand in the till. By 1997, sweeping change was as much-needed and inevitable as it had been in 1906, 1945, 1964 and 1979 – and would be in 2010. And, for good or ill, change came.

Re-watching news reports from May 1997 prior to writing this piece, it was interesting to contrast John Major’s departure from Downing Street with Blair’s arrival. Major’s farewell speech was made with him standing before a couple of microphones and no additional embellishments for dramatic effect; his successor, on the other hand, announced the beginning of his reign before the media with his hands resting on a lectern, an item of political furniture that no announcement from the same location can now be made without. Seeing the clip anew, it seemed evident to me that this was Blair the preacher-man with his makeshift pulpit, spreading the Gospel to the masses who were prepared to buy into it; and it appeared the majority were prepared.

This isn’t an attempt to summarise ‘the Blair effect’ over the decade following 1 May 1997; for one thing, there isn’t enough space to do so, and categorising the changes that came about courtesy of the electorate’s choice twenty years ago (not to mention 2001 and 05) would require more than one post, for sure. What’s indisputable is that, in its own way, the result of the 1997 General Election was as significant from a Labour perspective as 1964 had been.

Comparisons with 1945 don’t quite hold up in that Attlee’s administration came to power in unique circumstances and the transformation of the country they brought about was largely benign because nothing could be worse than six years of a world war. As for Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, the hand of history on his shoulder is just as likely to pat him on the back as it is to stab him in the same spot.

© The Editor

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REGIONAL VARIATIONS

Whenever the topic of homogenisation of the UK raises its ugly head, it’s only natural that the most visible examples out on the street tend to grab centre-stage – a conversation invariably dominated by the corporate chain-stores that render each shopping area in every town or city indistinguishable from the next. In a sense, this is the retail equivalent of the ‘Subtopia’ notion coined by architectural critic Ian Nairn in the 50s to describe the uniform dreariness of urban town-planning and its disregard for those who have to live amongst its end results. However, one overlooked element of homogenisation has crept upon the populace with far sneakier stealth than the Identikit shopping experience, and that has been with us for thirteen years now.

The Broadcasting Act of 1990 has had several far-reaching effects on the television landscape, but what it did to the nation’s sole commercial broadcaster prior to the arrival of Sky has perhaps served to alter the way in which the different regions of the UK are represented via the goggle box. It’s not so long ago that a holiday in a different part of the country to the one you knew as home would include tuning in to that region’s ITV station. It was a curious experience, like slipping into a parallel universe. It looked familiar, and yet it was distinctly different.

The original ITV formula of only the prime-time viewing schedule being networked meant that the majority of broadcasting hours were in the hands of the regional companies that made up the network; and they often played by their own rules. Imported dramas screened either in the afternoon or following ‘News at Ten’, such as Aussie soaps or US cop series, would be at different stages of their respective runs depending which ITV service you received. I recall a holiday down south in the early 80s, moving from the TVS region to the TSW one over a fortnight, and seeing the same episode of ‘Hill Street Blues’ two weeks running, an episode I’d already seen once before on YTV around six months earlier.

It wasn’t just the differences in imported shows, however; the same applied to the home-grown presentation. The on-screen graphics differed from region-to-region; some stations had in-vision continuity announcers and some (such as the old Westward company and its successor TSW) also produced their own opt-out children’s slots such as ‘Gus Honeybun’s Magic Birthdays’, a five-minute spot in which a puppet rabbit accompanied a station stalwart as he or she announced viewers’ birthdays. Even the national sport was regionalised, with each ITV company producing its own football programme on a Sunday afternoon, with the home teams local ones.

Whilst the big bucks of the so-called Big Five ITV companies were geared towards producing networked shows, one of the specifications in each ITV contract was that the franchise holders had to make a sizeable proportion of programmes exclusive to their own audience. Some of these were in the vein parodied by ‘The Fast Show’ character Bob Fleming – i.e. rustic country pursuits of interest to OAPs in the region and nobody outside of it – or shows that were eventually networked, such as Border Television’s ‘Mr and Mrs’ and even ‘Countdown’, which had a short run on YTV a year before the launch of Channel 4.

In those days, ITV was simply a generic name that wasn’t used much in the regions. Viewers would ask each other things like ‘What’s on ATV tonight?’ The regional station was seen as the alternative to the BBC and their on-screen identities were highly visible. Wherever you happened to be in the country, you were made aware which region produced the programme you were watching due to the short ‘ident’ that introduced it. Anyone over a certain age will recall Anglia’s silver statuette of the Black Prince on horseback, the nautical symbol of Southern and its gentle acoustic guitar jingle, the collected London skyline materialising from the river that represented Thames, the Yorkshire chevron and the pounding notes from ‘Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at’, ATV’s dramatic horns and three-colour dots that formed into its familiar logo and so on. Some of these idents were often more memorable than the programmes that followed them and remain engrained on the collective consciousness.

Before the intrusive incursion of breakfast television, many of the ITV companies even opened proceedings on a morning with a short travelogue film of the region, something that helped define the region as a location in its own broadcasting right even further. These films, most of which can be found today on YouTube, are now fascinating time capsules of a lost world, a world before UK plc. All this changed with the ramifications of the 1990 Broadcasting Act.

In the classic Thatcherite ‘free-market’ mould, the Act removed the barriers preventing the bigger ITV companies gobbling-up the smaller ones. Decades-old complaints that the IBA favoured the big guns when it came to prized networked slots were cast aside as the unedifying corporate cannibalism got underway. This began with Yorkshire Television acquiring Tyne-Tees in 1992 and continued throughout the last decade of the twentieth century so that by 2004 Granada and Carlton owned all the ITV franchises for England and Wales. With only STV in Scotland and UTV in Northern Ireland out of their reach, Granada and Carlton remodelled the ITV network along BBC lines, a national broadcaster with no sentiment for the regions.

This changed the nature of ITV forever thereafter. Regional continuity announcers and all regional programmes exclusive to the region that produced them (bar the weekday news magazine shows) vanished, replaced by a nationwide schedule transmitted from the capital. Gradually, each individual ITV franchise holder was renamed to reflect the changes. London Weekend Television and Carlton Television merged to become ITV London, Yorkshire Television became ITV Yorkshire, Anglia Television became ITV Anglia etc. The visual symbols that had represented the independence of the regions since ITV’s genesis in the 50s disappeared beneath the ITV plc logo, but more disappeared than just that.

When it comes to homogenisation of this country, one only has to turn the telly on to see it – or tune in to your one-time Independent Local Radio station; but that’s another story for another day.

© The Editor

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